Updated: Nov 5
The weather is quickly getting colder here in Wisconsin so thought we'd put together some tips and tricks for layering and staying warm! What follows is a collection of knowledge and insights from various training we've taken, real experience using various components, and commonly known info found online from reputable sources. We've trained in some of the worst Wisconsin weather conditions possible (monsoons, snow, 20* below zero, 30mph winds, etc) but our layering has made things much more comfortable than they could have been.
Full disclaimer: there are a lot more people out there that know more than we do and have more experience in the elements. Although we've done the research and testing, nothing we say here should be considered gospel. Layering knowledge is hardly earth-shattering, but there are good ways to do it. You've heard us say this in classes before, but we'll repeat here: there are a lot of ways to do things and more than one right way, so choose what works best for you.
Our goals are to provide you with:
Actual experience and knowledge on what works for general outdoor activities like shooting or hiking, NOT sitting in a deer stand or on the ice for 10 hours
The best fabric options to choose from
Considerations for staying flexible and mobile, and
Tips to not look like a Fudd
Right off the bat, let's cover what works best for each of us.
I like a combination of polyester/fleece or alpaca materials for my base and mid layers, and a soft-shell or rain shell for my outer layer. I don't do well with wool, even merino (it's always itchy and feels wet to me), so I've found that alpaca fabrics work just as well, if not better, for staying warm, dry, and comfortable. I also stick to earthy tones like olive drab or flat dark earth for a little environmental assimilation.
For my base layer I prefer light, medium, and heavyweight fleece options for leggings and tops (all long sleeves) depending on the temperature. I like the slimmer, fitted options of each from Under Armour, Cabelas, or LL Bean. I've tried cheaper options from Walmart and Amazon in the past, but these don't provide the same level of protection even if they feel the same.
I strictly use alpaca socks no matter what season it is. They are extremely breathable and always dry. In the summer I use the thinner low cut options, and move to the thicker crew socks in the colder months.
For mid layers, I prefer fleece quarter zips (helps insulate better) of various thicknesses on top and fleece sweat pants on bottom. If it's one of those weird cold days where the sun feels warm or a warm day with cold wind, I'll go with an alpaca sweater instead. I also love insulated "puffer" layers if it's really cold, like the Viktos Alphadawn or the thinner Northface insulated jackets. I don't like this layer too tight since that restricts movement. I'll never use a cotton mid layer as they are too breezy and/or not warm enough.
My outer layer is pretty straightforward. I use a sherpa-lined soft shell jacket or the Viktos Range Trainer Waterproof Shell - both with hoods. With the right layering underneath, there is seldom a need for a thick winter jacket. I also prefer my outer layers to have zip up sides for access to my belt or holster. For pants, my choices are plain old tactical pants from 5.11 or Eddie Bauer, or fleece-lined, vented soft-shell pants that I consider expendable. I always keep a waterproof pant from Cabelas on hand as well.
On my head I go with a fleece-lined beanie, and fleece neck gaiter. The common acrylic winter hats are just too itchy after a while. On the hands, we stick with shooting gloves, even if thinner, and keep an electronic hand warmer in the pockets. For long bouts, fleece lined mittens with finger access do the trick. On my feet, I have both regular and waterproof low cut shoes for warmer weather, waterproof mid level boots for spring and fall, and full size insulated waterproof winter boots for the snow. All from Columbia or Viktos. The outlets are a great place to save money here.
I generally stick with merino wool for my base layer, but sometimes I'll go with synthetic fabrics like polyester. If it's really cold, I'll always choose merino. I have really liked the merino options from Icebreaker or Smartwool. Even if I'm exerting myself, the merino never stinks.
For mid layers, I prefer synthetic down or fleece of various thicknesses. I generally lean on the thicker side to get away with wearing fewer layers. I don't have any brand favorites here, but I strongly recommend going with something reputable. Down and fleece are not all one in the same!
For my outer layers, I'll always go with a waterproof shell. The wind blocking capabilities and solid design repel the cold and retain heat, in addition to keeping water out if need be. The Viktos Ranger Trainer Waterproof Shell or Kuiu options are my favorites. Occasionally I will throw a heavy fleece or wool sweatshirt on if it's drier and not as windy.
Lastly, I go with Darn Tough socks most of the time. They have outperformed expectations through long hikes, long days on the range, and working full days in the yard. My feet are always comfortable. As long as the socks are synthetic and wicking, I'm OK with that. Over those, I use Salomon Goretex boots for most activities and hiking. When it's cold, I make the switch to Merrell insulated boots. Don't skimp on your footwear and make sure they are comfortable!
The main purpose of this layer is staying dry. This layer should be tighter to the skin, without restricting movement. All sorts of fabric options exist and we recommend getting at least a lightweight and heavyweight layer for the various temps. Merino and alpaca generally offer the highest warmth-to-weight ratio, but are also the most expensive.
Merino wool and polyester (fleece or blend) are the most popular and are both warm and dryer
Silk and cotton are other options that are more comfortable but retain moisture
Use various weights for different conditions and stick with the lightest option you can tolerate
Don't overlook bacteria fighting materials to prevent the stink
Consider long or short sleeved options
For men, polyester briefs work well as boxers often bunch up and restrict movement
The mid layer primarily serves as your insulating layer, but you don't want to get too bulky or it will be hard to move. You still want this layer to remain breathable, but retain as much warmth as possible. Having multiple insulators isn't always a bad idea, but remember, bulk restricts movement.
Fleece, merino wool, and flannel are the popular all-around options
Down, hemp, and cashmere are generally warmer
Corduroy is great for pants, and cotton works but is generally heavier and thicker
Ensure this layer is breathable or you'll be damp as soon as you exert yourself
A thicker option or doubling up might negate the need for an outer layer
Consider the warming properties if this layer gets wet - some down and fleece options can still retain warmth
The outer layer has many purposes - protection from the elements and preserving the base and mid layer functions are the keys. Camouflage or a lack of camouflage should be considered as well depending on purpose. Are you trying to stay hidden in nature or blend in with your urban environment? This layer is usually the most expensive, but we believe in spending the money to get something good. Like good glass, buy once cry once.
Nylon and soft-shell repel the wind, but aren't always waterproof
Heavy sweaters with Windshear tech are great for drier spring and fall days
Stick with the thinnest option possible and rely on sherpa, fleece, down, or flannel liners for insulation
Proper venting capabilities on this layer are a must
Gore-tex is largely regarded as the best material for extreme conditions
Have a waterproof option - a simple rain shell blocks water AND wind
Ensure you can easily access your belt, holster, or equipment
Head, Hands, and Feet
Don't overlook your extremities! Having protection for your head/face/neck, hands, and feet are crucial for staying comfortable in sour weather. These body parts are hard to regulate perfectly due to physiology, so don't be afraid to switch up what you're wearing. The head sweats easily under exertion, and the hands and feet easily get cold.
Fleece (or fleece lined) and merino wool options are the best for head - the fur bomber hat is going to leave you sweating
Hats should permit comfortable wearing of ear and eye protection
Consider hooded jackets for an added layer
Thinner gloves offer more dexterity and safety, but have a way to keep your fingers warm with Thinsulate options or hand warmers
Utilize hand/foot warmers to enable less clothing and more movement
Note that waterproof footwear traps moisture even with wicking socks
Have boots and shoes for wet and dry weather
Ensuring You Are Prepared
A good layering system can be an investment, but it's the difference between having a good time or freezing your butt off. Having a flexible set up allows you comfort year round in any climate. Remember, birthdays and holidays are a great opportunity to acquire what you need.
No matter what weather you are setting out in, it's a good idea to keep the next warmest option in your arsenal nearby. Throw it in your range bag or vehicle in case it's needed. It's also a great idea to keep an insulated jacket and rain shell in your car at all times. You never know when you're gonna need it and you'll never be without. It's not a bad idea to keep a spare pair of socks and hand/foot warmers in your kit or car as well.
The opposite is also true. You may need to shed layers, so any of your choices should be easily removed and stowed. Always leave room in your bag if adventuring in the wild. Pack a few garbage bags to store wet clothes in while on the move
We hope these tips help keep you comfortable year round! We're always trying new things to see what works better and throughout thousands of hours of training, hiking, camping, exploring, and chatting with others we've settled on specific items for a reason.